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Apple in China: ‘The New York Times’ Goes for the Pulitzer

When monologist Mike Daisey flew to China to find out why the workers who assemble electronic devices for Apple (AAPL)—and every other major U.S. manufacturer—were jumping from the roofs of their factory-city dormitories, he was shocked to discover that most of the American reporters writing about the suicides had never visited the plants or talked to any of the workers. (See A harsh light on Apple’s supply chain.)

Well that’s changed. A few months ago, the New York Times assigned a team of reporters led by Charles Duhigg, Keith Bradsher and David Barboza to investigate the hundreds of Chinese companies that make our iPads and iPhones—starting with Foxconn, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics components.

The first story in the series, How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work, described an ecosystem of interlocking Asian component suppliers so vast, responsive and eager for the work that it was clear by the end that, as Steve Jobs reportedly told President Obama at a dinner last year, “Those jobs aren’t coming back” to America.

The second piece in the series—In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad, published today—makes it clear that Americans wouldn’t want those jobs. It starts with the story of one Chinese worker fatally burned when an iPad polishing factory exploded last May and doesn’t stop until it has explored every available report of unsafe or onerous working conditions in Apple’s supply chain. Although it gives the company credit for trying to do something about it—establishing a code of conduct, performing inspections, issuing annual compliance reports—it quotes former and current Apple employees who question the company’s commitment.

“We’ve had this conversation hundreds of times,” a former executive in Apple’s supplier responsibility group told the Times. “There is a genuine, companywide commitment to the code of conduct. But taking it to the next level and creating real change conflicts with secrecy and business goals, and so there’s only so far we can go.”

It’s the kind of reporting that wins the New York Times Pulitzers year after year. But one of the things the prize committee looks for in a series like this is evidence that it’s had an impact. That something has really changed.

That’s going to be tough.